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Are Statistics a True Measure of Learning in Schools?

TeachersClarksville, TN – Let’s face it. School evaluations are ruled by statistics these days. Teachers are being evaluated by how well their students are doing on standardized tests. Student end of year grades are being influenced by their statistical performance on standardized tests because those measurements are now being averaged as a percentage of those grades.

Statistics is a branch of math that is involved with looking at numerical data and interpreting what those numbers mean.

Let’s put aside the statistical possibility that a child might have had a bad night the night before the test (like the police arriving to take a parent to jail, or a sibling who was sick and cried most of the night, or the child himself/herself being so nervous s/he was up all night throwing up!).

Let’s eliminate the kids who have test phobias and just can’t concentrate well enough to focus on the test at hand.

Let’s forget about the classroom where a member of the class had a seizure during the test and all the other kids had their concentration eliminated for a period of time.

Let’s just assume that everything was perfect and every child did his best on the test.

Some unusual factors can still influence those all important statistics for results on the test. Educators know that groups of children from year to year just don’t perform the same way. Some years a high percentage of the children seem to have come into the world with higher capacities for learning; that’s called a “good year” by those teachers.

Other years a class will have a high percentage of children who are below average achievers; many times this is because those children are chronologically younger; in other words, more kids in this group have birthdays just before the deadline to be able to enter school. That’s called a “difficult year” by the teachers who are working with shorter attention spans and an increased number of children with a less successful background.

Sometimes changes in the curriculum can strongly affect achievement levels. For instance, if the total approach to teaching math changes that year, teachers may be struggling with the new techniques of teaching these concepts and children who have been taught using a different system may be just plain confused.

Another possibility that can influence statistics is a change in the testing procedures. Moving from taking the test on paper to taking it on the computer—especially for young students who are just getting accustomed to typing—can make significant dips in statistical results.

Testing has become the bedrock of our educational system. Whereas parents took an achievement test at the end of the year—one series of tests perhaps—they can now witness their children being tested numerous times throughout the year to get ready for the TCAP writing assessment and the TCAP tests on language arts, mathematics, social studies and science. High school students–and some middle school students–take the EOC—or End of Course—tests.

Now, because the TCAP results affect end of year grades, some quick scores are given just at the end of school with the “real” scores appearing as school begins again in the fall.

Teacher evaluations are also influenced according to how their students did on these tests.

Adding to the confusion, the Tennessee Department of Education issued an apology in 2015 for not communicating that certain scores that originally had meant that students were proficient might no longer mean that on this year’s quick scores.

Ask any mathematician: can statistics be skewed to prove what the speaker wishes to communicate? The math guru will tell you without hesitation–”Oh, yeah!”

The statistics game took over our educational system when No Child Left Behind was the buzz word of the day. NCLB is history, but numbers still rule.

Some would insist that we just have to measure achievement to see if our schools are up to par. Do those same people feel that we have to keep measuring weekly, monthly, every six to nine weeks, and annually to figure this out?

Ask teachers who just quit teaching. Many will tell you that when numbers and testing became the focus of most of their hours at the expense of time to teach and help their students learn to face their future, teaching became more aggravation than it was worth.

Measuring the marigolds is the subject of an old song called “Inchworm” (written by Frank Loesser and performed by Danny Kaye first in the 1952 movie, Hans Christian Andersen). Its message, “Seems to me you’d stop to see how beautiful they are.”

Our children have one chance to be children. They have to learn approximately 55,000 words by the time they are in fifth grade from a vocabulary that many have of only 600 words when they enter kindergarten. Is it more important to test them constantly to see what they know instead of focusing most of their time in school on actually comprehending what they need to learn?

Many parents want constant reassurance that their children are getting the best education. Are they going to get that knowledge from numbers, or could they possibly find out by talking to their children over dinner?

Just think about it.

Sue Freeman Culverhouse
Sue Freeman Culverhousehttp://culverhouseart.com/
Author of Tennessee Literary Luminaries: From Cormac McCarthy to Robert Penn Warren (The History Press, 2013) Sue Freeman Culverhouse has been a freelance writer for the past 36 years. Beginning in 1976, she published magazines articles in Americana, Historic Preservation, American Horticulturist, Flower and Garden, The Albemarle Magazine, and many others. Sue is the winner of two Virginia Press Awards in writing. She moved to Springfield, Tennessee in 2003 with her sculptor husband, Bill a retired attorney. Sue has one daughter,  Susan Leigh Miller who teaches poetry and creative writing at Rutgers University. Sue teaches music and writing at Watauga Elementary School in Ridgetop, Tennessee to approximately 500 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. She also publishes a literary magazine each year; all work in the magazine is written and illustrated by the students. Sue writes "Uncommon Sense," a column in the Robertson County Times, which also appears on Clarksville Online. She is the author of "Seven keys to a sucessful life", which is  available on amazon.com and pubishamerica.com; this is a self-help book for all ages.

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